Friday, June 24, 2016

So Many Books, So Little Time

Once you start a book, do you feel compelled to finish it? If not, what causes you to put it down?

by Paul D. Marks


And ditto for movies.

I used to feel not only compelled but obligated to finish any book I started. (Okay, a little compulsive I know.) But as I’ve gotten older that just doesn’t work anymore. Life is too short. There’s too many books and too little time, as has been noted here all week. I won’t even say there’re too many good books, because I won’t claim that every book I finish—and even like—is a “good” book. It might just be something I enjoy. A guilty pleasure.

I read a variety of things, non-fiction and fiction and various genres within that. These days I don’t often read a non-fiction book cover to cover like I used to. I bounce around, sometimes looking at the table of contents or the index for subjects I might find particularly interesting. And sometimes I just open to a page and start reading.

Fiction is, of course, different. You really have to read it from head to tail if you want to get the full flavor and depth of it. I’ll usually give a book about 80-100 pages. But I have to admit that I might read beyond that even if I’m not enjoying the book because hope springs eternal. And I guess I still have that expectation that it will get better. Unfortunately on some books I’ll read all 400 pages until hope turns to despair.

For movies, I’ll give them about a half hour. That should take me to the end of Act I, give or take. If it doesn’t grab me by then: bye-bye.

However, when I’ve been a judge for various competitions I have felt obligated to read every story from stem to stern. And I’ve pretty much succeeded at that, though it can be extremely time-consuming. But I have to admit there was one story that I just couldn’t finish. Because it wasn’t a “story” but more of a political diatribe disguised as a story and the characters were just mouthpieces for the author. But one clunker out of the tons I’ve read for various contests isn’t a bad batting average I’d say.

There is one very well-known book that I have been unable to finish. Three times. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I really want to read this book and I really want to like it. But I can’t seem to get past page 100. But maybe the fourth time (if there is one) will be the charm. Or maybe I should just read Gravity’s Rambo instead (and no, I didn’t make that cover).

And like Catriona mentioned yesterday, sometimes I’ve started a book and for one reason or another just couldn’t get into it. Picked it up later and wow, what have I been missing.

A book doesn’t have to be a fast-paced, rip-roaring page turner either. One of my favorite books is The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, about a soldier who is stationed at a remote outpost and spends his life hoping and waiting for the glory of battle. Though that’s really just what it’s about on the surface. Now, I admit this book is a slow read, so you’d think I would have stopped at some point. But I just loved it and it’s well worth the slowness in my opinion.

On another note, I don’t always finish novels or stories I start to write, but I guess that’s for another time.

Here are some pictures from my book signing last week with Pam Ripling at The Open Book in Valencia:

And my radio interview at KHTS AM 1220. Click here for the podcast.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Buried in Books (and it's a lovely way to go).

By Catriona

Do I always finish a book I've started? And if not, what makes me lay it down?

No. Ever since I first got my three orange library tickets, I've now and then failed to finish reading the books I've chosen.

What's changed is whether I feel particularly guilty. See that last paragraph? See that word "failed"? That's as neutral as I can get it; "flaked out" and "fell short" went through my head too. Oh, I used to beat myself up something chronic about not finishing books. The BR pile (being read) was as tall as the TBR pile. And the BR pile was big lie. All it did was use up bookmarks, as I kept my place year after year in books that I was never going to go back to. These days I admit it and reshelve the books. (Why not donate them? Keep reading and see.)

As to what makes me give up? Well, I think joyful reading is a three-legged stool: there's the book, the reader and the moment.

I'm sure there are bad books. Somewhere sometime a book must have been published that no one liked enough to finish. I don't think I've ever stopped reading because I was turning the pages of a bad book, though. I turned thirteen pages of 50 SHADES OF GREY and gave up on page fourteen. But 46,472 and counting people liked it enough to tell Amazon.

And I'm not a perfect reader. I'm uninterested in some things (Middle Earth, for instance). My heart sinks when faced with some things (long poems, for instance. Anything much longer than a sonnet pretty much makes me glaze over. Poems that go over the page to the next page leave me behind.)
But I'm not self-regarding enough to think The Lord of The Rings and Paradise Lost are no good because they're no good for me. So I wasn't that surprised when I used Simon Armitage's Sir Gawain and The Green Knight as a bookmark park for a year and a half.

But then there's that third thing - the moment. The season, the day of the week, the time of the day, what you read last, what you're writing, whether the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart all around you and no one has noticed . . . there are so many ways a reading experience can be derailed.
And the proof of it is when a book I tried and failed with (Failed I tell you! Failed like a big honking FAILURE) comes back in another guise and shows itself to be delightful.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been handed a moderating gig , or even an interviewing gig, and on my bookshelf is something by one of the panelists (or the sole interviewee) that I started and laid down unfinished. I pick it up again and adore it! Devour it! Buy the backlist and bore everyone on Facebook with how fantabulous this author is.

Nothing ever makes me feel like a bigger idiot than realizing that I had treasure on my bookshelf and didn't know.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Of final chapters and zombies by Cathy Ace

 "Once you start a book, do you feel compelled to finish it? If not, what causes you to put it down?"

Once upon a time, the answer to this would have been – “I always finish what I’ve started” but, recently, I find I’m having to allow myself to not finish a book I’ve begun. It’s a pretty alien concept to me – like not clearing my plate. Ingrained absolutes are tough to shake.

Books were so precious to me for most of my life (and still are, don’t get me wrong!) that it would be anathema to me to not work through to the end of a volume to complete the journey the author planned for me to take. Now? Not so much. Now I find my reading time is so much shorter than it used to be, and I have to read so much because of “authorly” commitments, that reading for pure pleasure has become something where I need to be grabbed by the book as soon as possible and not let go until the last page or – yes – I’ll wander off and find someone else who can give me that fix before I reach the final chapters
Waiting for a long vacation
 By week two of a two-week vacation I might be able to face a book with le Carre’s stately pace, but in week one I’m smashing through the Pattersons and Childs like a crazy person with smart characters, quite-but-strong types and high body counts littering my waking hours in a blaze of joyous entertainment-crime. Then I can stop, and allow the pace to slow into a panoply of nuanced ne’er-do-wells, all of whom shouldn’t be trusted further than I can dribble. Lovely!

Now all I need is a month off, and I’ll be enjoying Jane Austen all over again. (I recently watched the movie “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and LOVED it! Yep, there were plot-holes, and the lines from Austen’s pen dripped slowly from the mouths of zombie-killing characters, but, overall, it was great fun. I couldn’t manage the book when it came out though. Yes, the zombie-version of Pride & Prejudice was too slow for me!)

And that’s about where I am with reading at the moment: if it ain’t grabbing me right away, I won’t finish it. But, oh, to have the time to luxuriate in the manners of the Bennet sisters without worrying that they gained their zombie-fighting skills in China not Japan? That will mean I’m having a real break! And finishing every book I pick up. But maybe not too many of them will be about zombies. 

Are zombies or spies your kind of thing? If neither - what keeps you turning the pages until you're at the back cover?

Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER was published in hardback in February, and book #1 THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER was published in trade paperback on March 1st) and the Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #7 THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE was published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at    

Monday, June 20, 2016

Why Would I Ever Put Down a Book?

"Once you start a book, do you feel compelled to finish it? If not, what causes you to put it down?"

 - from Susan

If you had asked me this question three or four years ago, I would have said, “Almost nothing.” I felt I owed it to the writer, to my wallet from which the funds came to buy it rather than some other book, to the principle of “waste not, want not” to finish what I started, to eat everything on my plate.

But having written four books and being in the thick of the fifth, I’ve lost a bit of the sense of loyalty – duty? – and have learned more about what goes into a good story, and how to spot something that’s just not taking off. I’m also a few years older and have enough unread books to last me more than my allotted years. So, if I get annoyed, confused, bored in the first 70-80 pages, I’m out.

I can hear you: 80 pages? Way too long. Yes, but maybe the writer starts slowly and is about to crack the story open on the next page. Maybe he redeems himself with the next scene. Mostly, no, that doesn’t happen. What does happen is:

Four female characters are introduced and they are all essentially the same – same physical tics, same attitudes, same voices, same ages. By page 50 I can’t keep Mary, Pat, Nancy, and Barbara (generic names too) apart and the author hasn’t given me a solid reason to try.

The first chapter takes place in Cleveland 2006, the second in Atlanta in 1873, the third in Cleveland again but in 2000 and the time and place shifts are giving me vertigo. It’s fair to time-shift and to place-shift but you’d better make each place more distinctive than Southern accents and hoop skirts.

The plot is way too complicated and the more convoluted it gets, the harder it is to maintain any momentum or focus. If I accepted the main plot and the three sub plots, I promise I’ll close the book when, on page 80, the author drops in an entirely new problem that means new characters and relationships and doesn’t seem to fit with what’s gone before.

The dialogue is not real and it doesn’t take me anywhere within the story. Assume the writer speaks English as a first language. Assume he or she lives in the real world and speaks to checkout clerks, dentists, and other writers hanging out at bars during conventions. Why don’t his characters talk like that? Why do her characters spend whole pages discussing how slow the elevators are in speech patterns right out of 1940s propaganda films?

The harder I work to get these things right in my own books, the more I have come to lose patience with books that can’t seem to pull it all together. Even now, though, I feel as though I’m being harsh and snobby, and that means I’ll probably assuage my guilt by sticking with the next not-quite-ready-for-prime-time novel that comes my way. It’s hard to write a good book, and I’m in awe of my colleagues who do it book after book after book. Those are the ones I read – carefully – to see how to make my own next book better.

Friday, June 10, 2016

They Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Wine

How do you make your characters’ dialogue sound realistic?

by Paul D. Marks

If you listen to two (or more) people talking you’ll hear that their conversation rambles all over the place. It bounces from one subject to another, there are pauses and ums and all kinds of distractions. This is conversation, not dialogue. Dialogue is not everyday conversation, but it needs to have the illusion that it is.

Your characters need to talk like real people, but at the same time their dialogue—your dialogue—needs to convey information, move the plot forward, possibly get out some exposition and either story or character background…….without being too obvious about it.

So how do you do this?

Listen to people around you. Their cadences. Intonation. Do they talk differently in a bar than a bookstore? On the East Coast than the West? And even if on the East Coast, don’t people from Maine talk differently from people in NYC or South Carolina? When we think of the East Coast, a lot of people think of New England, but the coast goes from Maine to the Florida Keys. How many different accents, ways of turning a phrase, slang, etc., do you think there are in just the states that border the Atlantic Ocean?

Even within a city there are different ways of talking. New York City has five boroughs. Is the accent and slang the same in each borough? Is it the same in Harlem and the East Side? Los Angeles is spread out over 503 square miles. Do you think the people from South Central talk the same as the people from the Valley—remember Valley Girls?

Make sure the way each character speaks is right for that character. Don’t have all your characters talk the same way. If all your characters speak with snappy lines and quick comebacks, how can you distinguish them from one another? I can understand having a couple characters that are smart and witty, but when every one of your characters is cracking one-liners, a reader might start to wonder if there’s something in the drinking water…  In other words, keep dialogue in line with character, don’t have a wallflower start talking like a sailor or a blowhard start speaking like Emily Post.

Don’t use too much jargon, maybe just enough to get the point across that the character works in a particular biz or is from a particular area or background. And don’t get carried away writing dialect. It’s hard to read. Focus on the way people phrase things. If the character’s from the South and has a drawl, don’t write everything out like it sounds, except sparingly to get an idea of the accent. Pop it in here or there, but mostly just say they talk with a drawl.

I once had a producer tell me to write dialogue in “ten word telegrams.” In screenplays most speeches should be short, not long soliloquys. Though ten words is a little too short much of the time (see the long speech from Sideways below). But you have more freedom in a novel, still you don’t want one speech running a page long.

Another thing that will help your dialogue stand out is to enrich it with subtext. For example, if you have two characters that are in a romantic relationship and they’re unhappy and thinking of breaking up, maybe a conversation about what restaurant to eat in can reveal more than just eating preferences. I particularly like this subtext/dialogue from the novel/movie Sideways. In that movie (which I highly recommend), Miles is a wine aficionado and frustrated writer—and very sensitive and prickly, as opposed to his wild and crazy-guy pal, Jack. Miles and Jack take a trip up to Santa Barbara wine country and Miles has some private time with Maya, a waitress he’s friendly with up there. They have a conversation about wine, but is that what it’s really about?

Maya (Virginia Madsen): You know, can I ask you a personal question, Miles?

Miles (Paul Giamatti): Sure.

Maya: Why are you so into Pinot? I mean, it's like a thing with you.

Miles: Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.*

And though this example is from a movie it applies to novels as well.

Then, when you’re done read it out loud, preferably in front of or with another person. You really do hear things that you don’t see when you read in your head.

Finally, be true to yourself, because everyone has an opinion and opinions are a dime a dozen:  I once optioned a screenplay to a producer. He read it and loved it, especially the dialogue. He gave it to a director to read it. She hated the dialogue. Magically and overnight, he hated the dialogue too. Go figure. So, unless you’re getting paid, write it your way.


I want to congratulate all the Shamus Nominees! Especially Bob Levinson, whose story Dead Detective was published in Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and… We’re very happy for Bob and Down & Out Books and also that the first Coast to Coast volume has been recognized. Volume 2, Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is in process.


*Directed by Alexander Payne. Screenplay by: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, based on a novel by Rex Pickett.

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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Telling it likes of how it is.

I love dialogue. It's the writing I find easiest to do.

Action is much trickier for me. If I use enough words to paint the scene it ends up too slow and if I try to keep up with the scene it's too telegraphic and gets boring. I think that's why good sports writing is so very good.

Description is easier. But since description is much to be resisted if you're hoping to get those pages whipping past, I always know when I'm writing it that I'll probably cut it later anyway. (I'd  love to see a modern editor faced with the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy, where he starts with the geology of the county. Talk about easing into the scene.)

Oh, but dialogue! I enjoy it a bit too much sometimes. Get carried away with what my agent calls the Dinnerladies scenes (after the brilliant ensemble British sitcom, where a clutch of factory canteen workers talk about ab-so-lute-ly nothing until the tears pour down your face from laughing so much.)

To the extent that I can write realistic dialogue, I do it lots of different ways. Three of the most useful are:

Staggering. Instead of each question being answered and each remark acknowledged in order, the conversational balls are tossed and caught in whatever pattern suit the characters' interest and agendas. A lot of clues can be hidden in the gaps and overlaps.

"So how come you didn't see the guy running away? Did you say you did want a coffee?"
'I told you, the street light was out. I couldn't see a thing."
"But you heard him. You must have heard something."
"Black, no sugar. Yeah, I heard him. Did you check the streetlight?"
"Pitch-black. No sugar."

If this is re-ordered to:

"Did you say you did want a coffee?
"Black. No sugar."
"So how come you didn't see the guy running away?"
'I told you, the street light was out. I couldn't see a thing."
"But you heard him. You must have heard something."
"Yeah, I heard him. Did you check the streetlight?"
"Pitch-black. No sugar."

Not only is it pretty dull but's it's much more obvious that the question about checking the street light didn't get answered.

Fragments. No one talks in complete sentences unless they're trying to pick up marks in a Conversational English oral test. It doesn't feel fragmented, though. It feels perfectly natural. Below, the sentences are in pink and the fragments in blue. (sneak peek at work in progress)

I heard about the ruby,’ I began, and she was off.
Oh, it was a sight,’ she said and laid one of her gnarled hands against her breast as though caressing it there. ‘A beautiful sight and a terrible sight. I feared to see the young mistress with all that on her neck, like drops of blood across her shoulders and a puddle of blood above her heart. Like a slit throat, it was. Even before you heard its name you could see it. An unlucky thing. An evil thing.’

It's not exactly a light speech anyway (first draft - that's my excuse) but imagine if all those fragments had the words to make them into sentences. Snore.

Informal grammar. Dialect, spoken style, informality . . . whatever you call it, I'm a big fan. I'm more prone to use speech grammar in writing these days than ever to use written style in speech or dialogue. That's what made it such a facer to see, just the other day, that someone had "corrected" my perfect, working-class, British English verb-form "gave" (in "It must have gave her a laugh.") to the more formal and less rhythmic "given". And in a library book too! The reader who shared the enormity, on Twitter, was just about as disgusted as I was. We agree, @KatWhen and me, that there's a special circle of Hell . . .

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Hi! Hey! Hello there. Pleased to meet y’all. Charmed, I’m Cathy Ace

How do you make your characters’ dialogue sound realistic?

The way a character greets someone can be the first clue to the reader about the nature and background of that character; just consider the different types of people who'd use the salutations in the title of this piece, for example. Once the ice is broken, it’s imperative the character’s dialogue continues to use the correct patterns and figures of speech that sort of person would use, or the illusion is shattered. So, yes, the dialogue used by all characters is critical to the success of a book: one of my personal aims is to tell a story without the words on the page getting in the way of the storytelling, so any dialogue “clangers” can distract a reader who knows those patterns of speech by breaking the spell.

However, to be honest, I think successful dialogue in a book is anything BUT realistic – it’s writing it in an unrealistic way that SEEMS natural/true for the character that’s the trick, I believe.  

How do I try to be true to the character? The first thing I decided was that all my main characters would be from backgrounds with which I am extremely familiar (I don’t write Southern Belles, LA hardboiled PIs or New York cops, for example). In my Cait Morgan Mysteries my main characters are Cait Morgan – a Welsh Canadian university professor in her late forties – and her Canadian retired-cop partner in life and crime Bud Anderson. Cait uses my mode of expression (because I’m Welsh Canadian) and Bud uses the form of Canadian English I hear around me every day, living in British Columbia. Because Cait travels to a new location for each book the characters specific to that book tend to come from the country in question – I only use locales with which I am deeply familiar (ie I have either lived there or have spent at least months, or years in total, visiting there). 

In my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries my five main protagonists are Welsh, Irish, Scottish, English and a mix of all four – again, speech-patterns with which I am familiar (having only left the UK when I was forty years of age), but which differ from each other. I know a good number of people with each of those accents, so all I have to do is listen to them “talking” in my head for a while before I write for that character, and I’m just about alright. But re-reading after a time-lag is critical. 

Me with "half of Annie Parker"
One of the things I have to do most often is to remove a piece of recurring speech (a writing tic, if you will) that read well when I put it in, but becomes repetitive after a fast read of a manuscript. Case in point? Annie Parker, the English “WISE Woman”, is a true Cockney born of St Lucian parents. (She’s based upon two of my real friends, “mashed-up” into one character, then given personality traits neither of them possesses.) She uses the words “Gordon Bennett!” to express great surprise, great displeasure etc. In real life a person who uses such an expression might do so on many occasions each day. What I’ve learned is that if that expression appears more than four times in a book of 80,000 words, someone will write a review saying something along the lines of “…the character’s always saying it…” So I’ve brought it down to three times maximum, per book. I’m hoping that helps. I really don’t want to break the spell! 

What dialogue have you read in a book that has truly cemented that character in their “place” for you? 

Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER was published in hardback in February, and book #1 THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER was published in trade paperback on March 1st) and the Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #7 THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE was published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at